Why revive the Russian lunar program?

The moon base could help the procurement of a special helium isotope — helium-3, which can be used as material for nuclear fuel. Source: NASA

The moon base could help the procurement of a special helium isotope — helium-3, which can be used as material for nuclear fuel. Source: NASA

After the failure of the Martian space station Fobos-Grunt, launched in November 2011, the red planet stopped being regarded as the main object of Russian interplanetary research. The moon is now the new priority on the agenda, and there are plans to build an inhabitable station for scientific purposes on this natural satellite of Earth. But exactly what purpose would this serve?

In the middle of October, during a celebration of Space Science Day, Lev Zeleniy, the scholar and director of the Space Research Institute, made a sensational announcement regarding the fact that Roscosmos was starting work on creating an inhabitable space station on the moon.

“Our next goal is to create a manned orbital station on the moon. A special work team for this purpose has already been created under the guidance of the head of Roscosmos,” said Zeleniy. The academic added that the main goal of this work team will be to combine the ideas and proposals of all leading cosmic companies specializing on the moon.

Zeleniy has been known to frequently criticize the priority of manned programs and actually favors automatic systems. His latest announcement can be regarded as a shift in the direction of Russia’s interplanetary exploration astronautics.

Yet the main question regarding lunar goals is still unanswered. Why plan and start expensive projects on lunar development? Besides everything else, it is evident that not one single country is able to afford such a major cosmic event on its own.

Meanwhile, America has winded down the truly promising human spaceflight program Constellation, which had to do with lunar research. At the same time, numerous European countries, India, China — states with serious cosmic potential — have not yet decided whether to start colonizing this satellite or not.

Nonetheless, Russian cosmic officials are certain that this is viable. “The moon is the most interesting object, especially if we take the next step and create an on-planet station. Mainly this is because we have everything we need to supply this station with products for vital functioning [if water is found] — propellant fuel, building material — we have everything,” says Yuri Makarov, head of strategic planning and target program department of Roscosmos.

But why is there a need to build an inhabitable station on the moon? Today, the only justified reason for this activity is that lunar research will help the procurement of a special helium isotope — helium-3. After this isotope is brought back to planet Earth, it will be possible to use it as basic material for nuclear fuel.

“According to scientists, the oil, gas and uranium supplies will last for approximately another 100 years; this is why searching for alternative energy is already necessary,” says Eric Galimov, a scholar and member of the Cosmic Council of the Russian Academy of Sciences.

At the same time, the cost of interplanetary delivery will be lower than the energy produced on nuclear power plants today. Galimov is certain that the helium-3 delivery all the way from the moon “may become a reality, but for this we have to start working today.”

Helium-3 is an isotope necessary for securing a controlled thermonuclear reaction, which is regarded by the international academic community as a panacea from the upcoming "energy hunger" on Earth.

It is said that the moon's supply of helium will make an energy-revolution possible and will forever solve the global power problem. Theoretically, this is true. However, the analysis of soil brought back to Earth by the Soviet station Luna and the American spaceship Apollon showed that there is actually a lot of helium there — 0.01 grams in 1 ton.

The problem is that there are no helium lakes on the moon: The helium there is equally distributed on the satellite's surface.

Imagining that the thermonuclear reaction has already been achieved, the annual helium demand of our planet is approximately 100 tons. This is actually not a lot — worth only a few space shuttle flights to Earth.

In order to achieve this amount, however, scientists will have to go through billions of tons of lunar soil. In addition, achieving and finding the ultimate man-controlled thermonuclear reactions will take at least 10 years and billions of dollars, according to scientists working in the field.

Meanwhile, by the end of this year, China is planning on sending a landing probe up to the moon. Having analyzed photographs taken by the Indian landing probe Chandrayan back in 2012, several American scientists found water in the abyssal rock of the moon's visible side.

The Japanese automatic station Kaguya, which was launched at the end of 2007, took high-quality photographs of a solar eclipse from the moon for the first time ever.

We want to believe that the Luna-Glob program, which is being constantly delayed, will not only land on the moon and take soil probe sampling, but also not be sacrificed for impressive moon management plans that are, nevertheless, far from reality.

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